No obstacles will stand in the way of your success this month,” says Rhett Smith, reading a narrow paper pulled from a fortune cookie.
He pauses, shaking his head.
“I just wish we had more time left in the month.”
In reality, Smith needs no fortune cookie motivation. The industrious Carmel native worked in home building, design, and sound installation before establishing The Media Room in the late 1990s. In two years, the Pacific Grove studio hosted more than 130 live shows and a television series. That project inspired Smith to produce jazz with Carmel’s KRML.
Around the same time, he started designing and building Wave Street Studios in Monterey. The copper-hued complex off Cannery Row is an event venue and recording studio that houses several businesses, including Quock Mui Tea Room & Boutique and Blackhawk Records.
Smith, who acquired the record label from KRML and Wisdom Broadcasting in 2005, intends to make it the West Coast’s predominant jazz name.
Blackhawk Records is no fledgling music label. Named for a popular 1950s and 1960s San Francisco jazz club, Blackhawk was launched in 1986 as Aspen Records’ jazz arm. Under the creative direction of jazz broadcaster and educator Dr. Herb Wong, the label released 40 albums in just one year—including recordings by such stars as Stan Getz, Abdullah Ibrahim and Chico Freeman.
“Blackhawk was the country’s number one jazz label in 1986,” says Blackhawk’s director, Chris Ward. “It was a very impressive first year for any label, let alone an indie label.”
Then, the money ran out.
Management and financial issues closed down Blackhawk, followed by years of trials and acquisitions.
When Smith eventually picked up the label, it came with more than 120,000 albums—including a rare recording of Billie Holiday’s performance at the first Monterey Jazz Festival.
Blackhawk Records released that album in 2007, on the event’s 50th anniversary. Upcoming jazz releases include music by Jessica Williams, the late Stan Getz, and the late Smith Dobson. At the same time, Blackhawk will showcase new artists discovered by Wong.
“His endorsement of what we’re doing provides a world of international support,” Ward says.
Some musicians have expressed interest simply because of Wong’s involvement. A book chronicling Blackhawk’s history is due out this spring, not long after the first CD release from its sister label, Big Wave Records. An album by bluesy, big-voiced Sarah McCoy hits the market this month.
Ward, who discovered McCoy, calls her music flat-out “phenomenal.” Smith plans to boost Blackhawk Records’ visibility with a weekly television and live-streamed jazz program filmed at Wave Street Studios.
He’ll up the energy with what he calls a “serious acoustic treatment”: a live audience.
“We use the audience as an instrument,” Smith says, pointing out that today’s artists can make quality recordings anywhere. The music changes, however, with spectators. Studio recordings can seem “mechanical,” agrees Ward.
“There is a certain relationship that exists when there is a live audience that you can’t capture in the studio. In this place we can, and it’s a completely different sound.”
Of course, Wave Street Studios is more than a broadcast and recording venue. In addition to producing albums and the jazz series, Smith is developing a college-accredited, on-site media program and will offer music and art opportunities for children. He rents the studio to artists for their own recording projects; he will also be filming lifestyle shows and additional television programs.
Yoga, Pilates and ballet classes are held there, as are receptions and private events. Smith sees no end to the momentum. “We’re developing an institution,” he says. “If I wanted to make money, we’d just sell the building. But we’re not going anywhere. I’ll be doing this until they drag me away, I can tell you that.”
As notes from Sarah McCoy’s new album shake the studio floor, which floats above a 2,200-cubic-foot bass trap, Smith looks around and smiles. It truly is music to his ears.